Outside groups pouring big money into RI gov race

Attack ads from the Alliance for a Better Rhode Island, left, and the Mid America Fund, right, are seeking to sway voters in the race for Rhode Island governor.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A huge amount of outside money is suddenly pouring into Rhode Island’s tight race for governor.

In the last 24 hours, two groups with no previous history in the state – one backed by the Democratic Governors Association and one backed by the Republican Governors Association – have dropped a combined $849,014 into the race to air TV ads attacking the top two candidates, Democrat Gina Raimondo and Republican Allan Fung, according to a WPRI.com review of R.I. Board of Elections filings.

To put that amount in perspective, it’s almost as much money as the $911,863 cash on hand that Fung’s campaign had as of Oct. 6, and it’s more than twice as much as the $333,645 that Raimondo’s campaign had on the same date, signaling just what a big role the outside groups could play in the final weeks of the race.

The Democrats’ group is calling itself the Alliance for a Better Rhode Island, and reported spending $291,594 on a new TV attack ad that started airing Monday, which criticizes Fung over his record as mayor of Cranston. A narrator says Fung was “taking care of the insiders, not the people.”

A Board of Elections disclosure shows the Alliance has received $250,000 from the Democratic Governors Association and another $100,000 from Rhode Island Women Vote, a Washington-based group that shares a phone number with EMILY’s List, the advocacy group that supports pro-choice Democratic women and has endorsed Raimondo.

The Republicans’ group is called the Mid America Fund, and reported spending $557,420 on its own new attack ad that started airing Wednesday, which takes Raimondo to task for her positions on hedge funds and taxes. A narrator says Raimondo is “gambling with our retirement, and we pay more.” The ad does not appear to be available online.

The Mid America Fund’s disclosure shows the group has received $435,000 from an Ohio-based super PAC called the Government Integrity Fund Inc., as well as $125,000 from the Republican Governors Association.

The two new groups aren’t the only outside organizations spending big money on the race for governor. American LeadHERship, a super PAC founded by Raimondo ally Kate CoyneMcCoy, is airing its own anti-Fung TV ad. American LeadHERship spent $270,000 in support of Raimondo between Oct. 6 and Oct. 15, according to its last Board of Elections disclosure.

In addition, one of the labor unions that has endorsed Raimondo – SEIU 1199, which represents health-care workers – reported spending $25,077 as of last week on election materials to advocate for her election. That brings the total amount spent by the four outside groups to $1.1 million so far, nearly evenly split between the two candidates.

One disadvantage for the outside groups compared with the candidates themselves is that under federal law only candidates get to pay lower ad rates to purchase TV time, which makes it more expensive for outside groups to buy commercials.

A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released last week showed Raimondo with a small but clear lead in the race. The poll found Raimondo at 42%, Fung at 36% and Moderate Bob Healey at 8%, with 12% of voters still undecided. The candidates met Tuesday night for their first televised debate, which aired live on WPRI 12.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, successfully negotiated a so-called “People’s Pledge” between Raimondo and her Democratic primary rivals to limit outside spending during that race. But his efforts to do the same for the general election campaign between Raimondo and Fung came to nothing.

“Lincoln Steffens famously wrote that, ‘Rhode Island is a state for sale, and cheap.’ The last few days of the gubernatorial election show that to be true,” Marion told WPRI.com in an email Wednesday.

“While not a lot of money by national standards, those are big dollars in little Rhode Island,” he said. “All the money is being spent not to talk about Rhode Island’s future, but to attack candidates. This is a sharp contrast to the Democratic primary which had a People’s Pledge and saw no outside spending on TV ads.”

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

This article has been revised to clarify American LeadHERship’s spending since the primary.

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